Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein – Pico Rivera, California

What is the best metropolitan area for classic restaurants?

Le Continental claims it’s Los Angeles, hands down! My list of classic and historic restaurants (that are at least 30 years old) in the greater L.A. area (including Orange County), which I have compiled from various sources over the years including the defunct LA Time Machines web site and more recently Nikki Kruezer’s excellent Offbeat LA list, comes to a total of 276 classic restaurants!

NOTE: With a few exceptions I have left out restaurants that have been relocated recently (one exception is Lawry’s Prime Rib, which relocated a few years ago into a new building and is still definitely a classic) but counted restaurants that relocated in the classic era (pre-1985). Bars (that aren’t also restaurants) were not counted and some multiple location chains (like Tommy’s and The Hat, which still have some original locations left) were counted only once. Included are hot dog and hamburger stands, delis, coffee shops, and casual and fine dining restaurants.

Los Angeles has not been covered very extensively on Le Continental to date. One reason for this is that it seems to me that most of the classics in LA remain very popular and are pretty well known already. But lately with skyrocketing rents and rising property values in California many popular classic restaurants are closing, either because they can’t stay in business facing increased rents or they sell their business while they can get big money from developers. Now I feel a stronger sense of urgency to let people know about my favorite old restaurants so they can visit them before they’re gone and to hopefully increase the restaurants’ business.

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein frontage

photo by Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein facebook page

 

In the San Gabriel Valley there is a chain of restaurants called Clearman’s, which includes the following restaurants:

My experience with Clearman’s started about 15 years ago, when I ate at the original Galley and the Northwoods Inn in San Gabriel, and strolled though the vintage 1950s shopping center behind the Galley (which was later demolished for a new shopping center). Later I visited the Steak ‘n Stein and Northwoods Inn in Covina. Last weekend I returned to the Steak ‘n Stein with friends.

 

Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein – classic Los Angeles steakhouse

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein, 1946

c. 1946 photo by Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein facebook page

 

John Clearman opened his first restaurant, the Steak ‘n Stein, in 1946 in a California-Mediterranean style. Originally the interior was a little plainer than it is now, as can be seen in the following historic photos. The fireplace lounge called the Circle Room was the most elaborate room with its round rock fire pit with copper hood, rustic furniture, brass lamps and wallpaper.

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein cocktail lounge and bar, 1946

cocktail lounge and bar, 1946 – photo by Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein facebook page

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein bar, 1946

bar, 1946 – photo by Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein facebook page

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein fireplace lounge, 1946

fireplace lounge, 1946 – photo by Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein facebook page

Grill Room 1946 (from fb)

Grill Room, 1946 – photo by Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein facebook page

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein chefs, 1946

chefs at charcoal grill, 1946, with tableside metal grills, all still in use today – photo by Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein facebook page

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein staff, 1946

John Clearman (seated in center) with staff – photo by Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein facebook page

 

Sometime later many Victorian style decorations were added, such as Tiffany lamps and oil paintings, and the bar was rebuilt with a thick wood top with wooden branches holding up a shingled roof.

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein bar before redo

bar before recent redo – photo by Clearman’s web site

 

Recently the bar was changed to a granite top and the wonderful wood roof supports were removed. Just why I can’t understand. Le Continental is not a fan of granite bar and counter tops. They don’t fit with vintage decor and they feel cold. But I’m glad they kept the bar stools and roof the same.

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein bar now

recent bar photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

After entering the front door you pass through the small lobby into the Circle Room to check in at the hostess desk.

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein entrance sign

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

While waiting for your table enjoy a drink and some complementary peanuts served in a small carafe in the fireplace lounge (unlike the peanuts served at the Northwoods Inn here they’re serve pre-shelled). In the winter a fire is lit while in the warmer months the pit becomes a fountain! Much of the Steak ‘n Stein reminds me of the Magic Lamp, also a John Clearman restaurant at one time, especially the fire pit (the Magic Lamp has a similar one).

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein fireplace lounge

fireplace lounge – photo by Clearman’s web site

 

There are multiple dining rooms at the Steak ‘n Stein. Here is my favorite one, complete with nude oil painting and fantastic Victorian chandelier!

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein dining room

photo by Clearman’s web site

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein chandelier

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein painting

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Below is the small dining room closest to the front door, which to my disappointment had a large TV mounted on the wall (turned off when I was there). I love the stained glass windows in this room! A TV turned on would ruin the atmosphere. (TVs don’t belong in dining rooms, ever. I don’t even like them in bars, but I really don’t see the point of having a TV on in a place where people are dining. The atmosphere in the main front dining room at the Northwoods Inn in San Gabriel has been ruined with some huge TVs.)

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein dining room

front dining room – photo by Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein facebook page

 

The menus are mounted on large wood hinged boards that are placed in the center of each table. How about the food? They specialize in steaks of course, which come in six cuts, from the 9 ounce “special steak” (top sirloin?) up to a 34 ounce bone-in tomahawk rib eye. The steaks tasted like they may have been from aged beef, but they don’t state that on the menu, and are broiled over an open charcoal fire.

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein charcoal pit

charcoal pit – photo by Clearman’s web site

 

They also have prime rib on weekends, many seafood entrees, surf & turf combinations, and chicken, all broiled over charcoal. Entrees come with a lot of food so the prices are pretty reasonable for a white tablecloth, fine dining experience (the Steak ‘n Stein is fancier than the casual Clearman’s Northwoods Inns). Dinners come with an iceberg lettuce salad with a side of red cabbage and a trio of unique homemade dressings, their famous (and delicious) cheese bread (ubiquitous in restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley), a giant baked potato with a tray of toppings including cheese sauce, and onion rings. If you want vegetables you will have to order a side. This is a meat & potatoes place.

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein waiter

tableside plating – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

A wonderful feature at the Steak ‘n Stein is the tableside plating. The waiter comes to your table with the steaks on a metal grill a la flambé. He or she loads each plate with a huge baked potato and opens it up, piles on the onion rings and plates the steak to serve to the diners. The service was excellent on a busy Saturday night.

 

Clearman's Steak 'n Stein sign

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

For more information on John Clearman check out Nikki Kruezer’s article on the LA Weekly web site. Thanks to Mr. Clearman’s vision and the popularity of the Clearman’s chain we still have several classic dining experiences in the San Gabriel Valley to choose from. But Clearman’s, please stop putting in TV’s in your dining rooms!

Clearman’s Steak ‘n Stein
9545 E Whittier Boulevard, Pico Rivera, CA 90660
(562) 699-4716
Open Mon-Thu 11:30am – 9:00pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am – 10:00pm, Sun 10:00am – 9:00pm

 

Los Caracoles, Barcelona, Spain

Last year I returned to Barcelona for the first time since 2004. The city I loved then has gotten better and better, with more dining and drinking options and more sights to see. I especially loved seeing some Modernist architectural wonders that I missed in 2004 as I concentrated on the most famous Gaudi sights on my first visit (I’m glad I did then because the lines were much, much longer this time). Highlights this time for me were Lluís Domènech i Montaner‘s astounding Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau (just opened to the public in 2014), both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And I braved the crowds to see the awesome interior of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, which is getting close to completion (due in 2026).

 

Barcelona

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

One of Barcelona’s oldest restaurants, Los Caracoles (aka Casa Bofarull) was opened in 1835 by the Bofarull family. Today fifth generation family member Aurora Bofarull runs the restaurant. Over the 180 years since it was founded, Los Caracoles (the snails) has attracted many celebrities, presidents, and other notables.

 

Barcelona

old postcard

 

Los Caracoles is located in the Gothic Quarter just off Las Ramblas. The outside corner of the restaurant features a chicken broiler visible through glass doors. If you stand there long enough you may see a chef come outside to baste the chickens. Once inside the door you enter the atmospheric bar with high ceilings, wooden cabinets and barrels, and a huge wrought iron chandelier.

 

Barcelona

bar – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

After passing through the bar you walk right through the kitchen!

 

Barcelona

kitchen – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

At the end of the kitchen the host escorts you to your table through a warren of dining rooms, each with their own historical charms. Photos are everywhere of famous Spaniards and people from around the world who have dined at the restaurant.

 

Barcelona

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Barcelona

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

The menu is traditional Catalan/Mediterranean. Their specialties are snails, mussels, garlic prawns, beans Catalan style, butifarra sausage with beans and mushrooms, roasted chicken, steaks and chops, paella, and a large seafood platter. I opted for the snails, which are served in sauce and with toothpicks to dig out the morsels. Note these are not like the escargot you may have had in the US or France. These snails are smaller and the meat is dark brown to black and slightly chewy but tender. Not for the squeamish about snails!

 

Barcelona

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Note the cute snail shaped crispy bread!

 

Barcelona

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

For my main dish I had delicious butifarra sausage with beans. And for dessert some crema Catalana, which is a must when in Catalonia! Bon profit! (Bon appetit in Catalan)

 

Los Caracoles
Carrer dels Escudellers, 14, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
Phone: +34 933 01 20 41
Open daily 1:00PM – 12:00 midnight

 

Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno, California

 

When I was a young man running around San Diego on my Lambretta scooter in the 1980s I loved to eat at the Chicken Pie Shop in Hillcrest, especially during cold winter days (OK, it never got very cold in San Diego, but we’re cold wimps in California). It was the ultimate homemade comfort food, served in a time machine café that first opened in 1938 at 5th and B downtown and later moved to 5th and Robinson in Hillcrest (first on the southeast corner, moving to the northeast corner in 1965). The chicken pot pie dinner was tasty, cheap, and very filling (lunch there was my meal for the day). In 1990 the shop was purchased and moved to North Park. It’s not a time warp anymore in atmosphere but the menu is still old-fashioned and the food is good, hearty, and cheap. The friendly, veteran staff stayed with the restaurant when it moved.

 

Storefront of Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

photo by mears on Flickr

 

In the cool Tower District of Fresno is an unrelated Chicken Pie Shop (aka Grandmarie’s) that is thankfully still frozen in time. In 1956 Mary Ross (“Grandmarie”) and her husband opened the original Chicken Pie Shop on Olive Street in Fresno to serve chicken pies from her own recipe. In 1966 it moved into a space on the same block previously occupied by Byde’s Hardware (the old location is now a parking lot next door). Mary Ross’ grandson Gary Ross is the current owner, so this year the restaurant has been owned by the same family for 60 years!

 

Dining room of Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

 

The dining room is probably the same as it was when it opened: two-tone green tufted-naugahyde booths, wood-grain Formica tables, original linoleum floors (a rarity these days!), chrome coat racks, and TWO horseshoe-shaped lunch counters in chartreuse Formica with bright-green swivel chairs. And there are large, colorful, rooster wall hangings!

 

lunch counter of Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

one of two lunch counters – photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

 

rooster wall hanging in Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

rooster wall hanging in Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

photo by Dean Curtis, 201

 

 

 

 

 

 

rooster wall hanging in Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The baked chicken pies are excellent: a flaky pastry crust filled with chicken chunks and served with mashed potatoes, a golden gravy made from scratch from the restaurant’s chicken stock, biscuits, and cole slaw, all house made. Other options for lunch or dinner are chicken & noodles, fried chicken livers, honey ham steak, country fried steak ‘n gravy, and pot roast. An assortment of sandwiches, salads, and soups are available, including their homemade chicken barley soup served with a mini loaf of homemade bread. They also serve breakfast. An off-menu special is the berrock, a pasty-like meat pie of Volga-German (Germans from Russia) origin.

 

berrock at Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

berrock on vintage plate – photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

 

As you can see, they still use vintage china. The good diner-style coffee is served in Tepco mugs, perfect with one of their house made deserts, such as the apple crumble. I had rice pudding and can say without reservations that it was THE BEST rice pudding I’ve ever had, hands down! And I love rice pudding so I’ve tried it all over the country.

 

rice pudding at Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

rice pudding – photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

 

After your hearty meal why not walk it off around the Tower District, which is a hip area of independent shops, restaurants, nightlife, and a historic theater.

 

(Grandmarie’s) Chicken Pie Shop (no web site)
861 E Olive Ave, Fresno, CA 93728
(559) 237-5042
Open Mon-Fri 7:00am – 7:00pm, Sat 8:00am – 6:00pm (possibly 2:00pm), Sun 8:00am – 2:00pm

 

Francesco’s in Oakland is closing – GO NOW

Last week I heard from a friend that Francesco’s Italian Restaurant, near the airport in Oakland since 1968, will be closing its doors for good soon. The word is they will be open until March or April of 2016. I went back last weekend for a long-overdue return with friends and it won’t be the last time I go back before it closes. The East Bay will be losing perhaps the last family-owned old-style Italian restaurant in the area and that is a real shame. This is a place I was excited to check out about 10 years ago but now I wish I had visited more often. Here are some pics I took last Saturday night.

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Dewey Bargiacchi opened Francesco’s in 1968 after running the popular Chandelier in Jack London Square. His mother, known as Mama Bargiacchi, founded the North Pole Club and the Villa de la Paix in Oakland. Francesco’s is now owned by the third generation of the same family.

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

the bar - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

the bar – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

amazing grapes chandelier - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

amazing grapes chandelier – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

our waitress Lisa preparing tableside Caesar salad - it was delicious! -  photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Our waitress Lisa preparing tableside Caesar salad – it was delicious! – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

"Italian pot roast" with their homemade ravioli - YUM! - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

“Italian pot roast” with their homemade ravioli – YUM! – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Be sure to look at the memorabilia of the family’s restaurant history at the entrance to the bar and the old photos and articles on the Oakland airport over the years.

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Francesco’s
8520 Pardee Dr, Oakland, CA 94621
(510) 569-0653
Open Mon-Fri 11:00am – 9:45pm, Sat 4:00pm-9:45pm, closed Sunday

 

 

The Branding Iron, Merced, California

When driving between the Bay Area and Los Angeles I prefer taking either U.S. highway 101 near the coast or U.S. 99 in the San Joaquin Valley over boring I-5. I have fond childhood memories of riding in the car on 99 during trips from San Diego to the Sierras or the Gold Country and beyond, watching the trucks on the concrete highway or the trains running alongside. Although much of old highway 99 (aka Business 99) has gotten run down and seedy there are still many interesting sights and antique stores, safe & clean motels, and good independent restaurants along the route. Highly recommended for your exploring along 99 are the series of books by Living Gold Press called That Ribbon of Highway. For over 15 years one of my favorite eateries along the route has been the Branding Iron, an absolute must-visit after dark (as you will see later in this post).

 

Original Pine Cone Restaurant, Merced, late 1940s

Original Pine Cone Restaurant, Merced, late 1940s

 

image by alamedainfo.com

image by alameda-info.com

 

In the 1940s Ray Douglas opened the Pine Cone restaurant in Merced, along what was then U.S. Highway 99 next to the train station. In 1952 he added the Branding Iron steakhouse on the site, which is where the Branding Iron still stands today. He eventually expanded into a chain of Pine Cone / Branding Iron restaurants and inns throughout Northern California. Locations included San Jose at Valley Fair Shopping Center, San Leandro at Bay Fair Shopping Center, Santa Clara at 5155 Stevens Creek Rd, Sacramento on Marconi near Fulton, Fresno at the Tradewinds Motor Hotel, Modesto at 1310 McHenry, and three locations in Merced. All are long closed or converted to other restaurants except the Branding Iron in Merced. On the advertising images for the Branding Iron a steak is being branded with the initials ‘RD’. I wonder if your steak used to come branded like that?

 

 

Branding Iron Restaurant - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Branding Iron Restaurant – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

In 1987 the Branding Iron was damaged by fire and closed. Greg Parle purchased the restaurant and restored it, re-opening it in 1988. Greg, his wife Kara, and their son Justin own and run the restaurant today. On my recent visit Greg was at the exit personally thanking his customers for coming (you don’t see that at chain restaurants!).

 

front dining room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

front dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

front dining room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

front dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

Upon entering the lobby of the Branding Iron on your left is the cocktail lounge with red tufted vinyl bar stools but too many TVs for my liking (it seems like every time I return there is one more TV in the bar). But that’s OK because the restaurant, on your right after entering, is just the way I like it – original 1950s ranch with western touches. Almost everything looks original, from the gorgeous open-beamed wood ceiling to the red tufted banquettes and booths, early American furniture, touches of brick, and in the rear dining room the beautiful copper fireplace (which unfortunately was not used on the chilly night I visited).

 

rear dining room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

I even like the planter boxes filled with plastic plants along the clerestory windows on the back wall. There are over 200 cattle brands from area ranches displayed on wooden plaques and engraved on the large wooden beams throughout the restaurant. And don’t you love how the recessed lighting enhances the beauty of the tongue and groove paneled wood ceiling? As an added attraction, for me anyway, while dining you can hear passing trains on the nearby tracks (the train station is next door making it a convenient stop if you’re riding Amtrak through the valley).

 

rear dining room from my table - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

rear dining room’s copper fireplace from my table – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

The menu, of course, specializes in beef, but also includes plenty of chicken, fish, and other dishes. They are famous for their gazpacho, a chilled tomato soup. Dinners may be ordered without soup and salad and come with a vegetable of the day, garlic bread, choice of potato or rice, and a plate-cleansing raspberry freeze, or for a small additional charge you can have a ‘deluxe’ dinner with homemade soup and salad. The last time I went I had the coffee-rubbed ribeye and it was tasty and tender. But I also recall liking the baseball cut top sirloin on a previous visit, a lean steak that can be chewy but is juicy and very flavorful if not cooked too long (so order it rare or med. rare). Their prime rib is also a specialty. It comes in three different sized cuts and is herb crusted and delicious. Other steaks on the menu include the Branding Iron (flatiron), filet mignon, New York strip, and a ribeye without the coffee rub.

 


A note on steaks that applies to many steakhouses around the country:
I have found that at steakhouses that are less expensive sometimes the steaks are cut thinner than at the more pricey steakhouses that age their beef (this does not mean that the beef is not as good). So it is my recommendation to order your steak less well done than you normally like it. For example, if you prefer medium rare (red, warm center) as I do order it rare. You can always send it back if it needs a few more minutes. Otherwise you may find your steak is closer to medium at the thinner edges. If you like your steak medium (pink center) order it medium rare. I ordered my ribeye at the Branding Iron rare and it was just right – red, but warm throughout.


 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Be sure and thank the animal who provided your steak! – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

 

The Branding Iron serves lunch and they have an outdoor patio during the warmer times of the year. The Roundup, three small steaks wrapped with bacon on a skewer with onions and bell pepper, served with fries, is a bargain at lunchtime. Also, the lunchtime menu is loaded with sandwiches, salads, and many of the steaks that are on their dinner menu. But if you don’t go at night you will miss the best animated neon sign for miles around!

 

 

The Branding Iron
640 W 16th St, Merced, CA 95340
(209) 722-1822
Open M-F for lunch 11:30am-2:00pm, daily for dinner 5:00pm-9:00pm (until 9:30pm on Friday and Saturday), cocktail lounge open daily 11am-11pm (bar food served M-F 2pm-9pm, Sat-Sun 5pm-9pm)